Statement On U.S. Policy In The Sahel

Last week the heads of state from Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, comprising the so-called G-5 Sahel countries, as well as France and Spain, met in Mauritania to discuss the next phase of efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel.  The final communique from the meeting stresses the need for the parties to “intensify the fight on all fronts.”  I want to highlight one aspect of this effort that risks undermining the eventual victory we all hope will be achieved, and that is human rights abuses committed by our partners, and impunity for such crimes.

The United States, France, and other donors have spent well over a billion dollars in recent years on development, humanitarian, stabilization, and security assistance for the countries of the Sahel, and together with our partners in the region have shed blood in this counterterrorism campaign, including four U.S. service members killed by militants while deployed to Niger in 2017. 

These resources have been provided and these sacrifices made because the threats posed by terrorism are among the many serious challenges plaguing local populations, and because we know the consequences of instability in the region will not remain local.  That is why the increasing number of reports alleging human rights abuses committed by our partners, specifically Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, is deeply disturbing.  The reports, ranging from torture to extrajudicial killings, implicate not just these governments’ security forces but militias operating with their support or acceptance.  In Burkina Faso, particularly, what has emerged is a systematic pattern of atrocities committed by state security forces and a variety of other armed actors associated with the government.  No military victory can be sustained without improvements in the governance of these states, and that includes a demonstrated commitment to ending this pattern of abuse and providing justice for the victims of these horrific crimes.

That is why I am raising these concerns today, to call on the State Department to hold our partners accountable, consistent with the Department’s own principles for engagement in the Sahel.  

On March 10, 2020, Under Secretary of State David Hale testified on U.S. policy in the Sahel before the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, and highlighted the importance of accountability for human rights abuses to ensure an effective counterterrorism campaign.  When asked what he believed the U.S. Government should do when faced with such persistent reports of abuse, specifically whether we should withhold aid, Under Secretary Hale noted that we should have a strategy to mitigate the need for such a decision in the first place.  He then spoke of the importance of “convinc[ing] leaders of the costs … not just to the relationship with us, but what it’s costing to their effort to stabilize their country,” noting that “ultimately, I agree with you, if we find the situation is simply not being reversed, and is irretrievable, then considering cutting our aid has to be on the table.”

In the three years preceding the abuses that have come to light over the last six months, the United States provided more than $300 million in security assistance to Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.  The Department of State and Department of Defense appear to be prepared to continue providing significant amounts of assistance.  Some regional leaders are taking their cues from the amount of assistance provided by the United States and from our government’s silence about these reports, highlighting that our principles and actions have become increasingly misaligned.  As important as it is for these governments to have the right training and equipment, we must recognize that such assistance alone is not enough to enable them to defeat extremism, which is fueled in part by public resentment and outrage about security force abuses and impunity for such crimes, a statement with which Under Secretary Hale said he concurred “100 percent.”

Yet credible reports of human rights violations have accelerated in the region, and the response by our partners, and the Trump Administration, has been far too limited, and in some cases nonexistent.  The strategy that Under Secretary Hale called for to avoid reaching this decision point has not been implemented effectively, if at all.  The time for quiet diplomacy, especially as heads of state recommit to intensifying the military campaign, has passed. 

It is important to note that taking action in response to these abuses is not an either/or proposition with respect to providing U.S. assistance.  We can support these governments and hold them responsible for meeting basic standards of human rights protections and accountability.  But it means demonstrating, not just talking about, the U.S. commitment to protecting civilians and combating impunity for human rights abuses, not only as moral and legal issues, but as a strategic imperative. 

There is no doubt that these countries face significant challenges, and that the threats to their security are real, the attacks by extremists barbaric.  That is why I have continued to support the provision of security assistance while also advocating for more locally-led development in the region.  But U.S. aid is not a blank check, and the repeated atrocities committed against civilians by our partners is wholly incompatible with our policy, our mission, and our ability to support these government forces.  I will not support the continuation of the status quo in our security assistance to these governments in the absence of tangible efforts to prevent and address these abuses.

The State Department should also act on its stated concerns by not only calling on our partners to thoroughly investigate these reports, but also to transparently prosecute and punish those involved, offering our assistance in such efforts as appropriate.  Equally important, the Department should ensure that future plans for assistance for these governments account for the steps they have or have not taken to address the allegations of abuses, both because it is the right thing to do and because our partners’ effectiveness depends on it.  Rather than wait for our hand to be forced into a precipitous withdrawal of support, we need to implement a responsible strategy, in coordination with our allies, including France, to ensure our support is sustainable.  That will require making hard choices in defense of our stated principles and objectives.

Respect for human rights is not an idealistic luxury that can be set aside to defeat terrorism.  That is a false choice that we make at our own peril, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.  On the contrary, working with our partners to protect human rights and hold violators accountable is fundamental to protecting our interests by ensuring long-term stability in the Sahel.

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